Comedian Quincy Jones Fights Mesothelioma

"There is no cancer when I’m on stage."

In 2015, 32-year-old comedian Quincy Jones’ career was finally starting to take off. Jones (not to be confused with the famous music producer) had moved from Seattle to Los Angeles four years earlier in the hopes of boosting his budding stand-up career. Working as a barista during the day and making the rounds at various comedy clubs at night was finally paying off. Jones had just signed a contract with an East Coast comedy tour when he went to the doctor to figure out the cause of a nagging stomach pain.

It took several hospitalizations, but the diagnosis was finally made in July 2015: Jones had stage 4 peritoneal mesothelioma. He was given one year to live.
Two friends he met on the comedy circuit, Mickey and Nicole Blaine, launched a Kickstarter campaign to defray some of his medical costs, as well as to fund his life-long dream of recording a one-hour stand-up special. As Jones put it:

"My biggest fear used to be — before cancer — it’s the same one I have now: Dying without leaving anything. Dying before I have the chance to do the stuff I want to do. So this (special) would be my opus. This would be my legacy I’m leaving here."

The campaign went viral, and they quickly raised their goal of $50,000. The campaign caught the eye of Ellen DeGeneres, who had Jones on her show twice during the same week. On the second visit, she told Jones that HBO had agreed to air his hour-long special, titled Quincy Jones: Burning the Light. The special was premiered on June 2, 2016.

Jones’ story has generated considerable publicity, inadvertently causing him to become a national spokesman for mesothelioma awareness. As he told KPCC’s The Frame:

"The special is not about me. This is bigger than me. The special is dedicated to anybody who has been through cancer, lost someone to cancer, or has cancer. This is literally about a disease."

What is Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma (MPM)?

Malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which cancer cells form in the lining of the chest or abdomen.

Cancer cells can be found in the pleura (the thin layer of tissue that lines the chest cavity and covers the lungs) or the peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen and covers most of the organs in the abdomen). Malignant mesothelioma may also form around the heart or testicles, but this is rare.

Approximately 3,300 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year. The majority of these cases occur in the chest, with malignant peritoneal mesothelioma (MPM) only accounting for 10 to 15 percent of new cases per year in the U.S.

What Causes MPM?

Being exposed to asbestos can affect the risk of malignant mesothelioma. A history of asbestos exposure is reported in about 70 to 80 percent of all cases of mesothelioma. Most people with malignant mesothelioma have worked or lived in places where they inhaled or swallowed asbestos. After being exposed to asbestos, it usually takes a long time for malignant mesothelioma to form. Living with a person who works near asbestos is also a risk factor for malignant mesothelioma.

There are also genetic factors that cause some people to be more susceptible to environment exposure to asbestos. For example, BAP1 is a tumor suppressor gene that, when mutated, can lead to a variety of cancers including mesothelioma, melanoma, and kidney cancer.  Genetic testing and genetic counseling are available for patients and families suspected of carrying mutated BAP1 genes.

What are the Symptoms of MPM?

Most patients with MPM have symptoms. On occasion, it is found incidentally while investigating an unrelated problem, such as infertility, or during a routine physical exam.

The most common signs and symptoms of MPM include abdominal distention or pain, weight loss, trouble breathing, and chest pain.

Sometimes, large amounts of fluid can collect in the chest or in the abdomen. A fluid collection in the abdomen is called ascites.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Cough;
  • Pain under the rib cage;
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen;
  • Lumps in the abdomen;
  • Constipation;
  • Problems with blood clots (clots form when they shouldn’t); and
  • Feeling very tired.

How is MPM Treated?

Most patients with MPM have late stage disease at the time of diagnosis and the prognosis is usually poor, with an average survival of about one year.

If clinically possible, the first treatment for patients with MPM is called cytoreductive surgery. This is a procedure where a surgeon tries to remove any and all visible tumor. For selected patients, a promising therapy, called heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), may be used. After the surgeon removes all the cancer that can be seen, a solution containing anticancer drugs is heated and pumped into and out of the abdomen to kill cancer cells that remain. Applying the chemotherapy directly to the affected tissues increases the dosage without increasing the side effects. In addition, heating the anticancer drugs may kill more cancer cells by allowing the drugs to penetrate more deeply into the surface of the peritoneum.

For patients who are not good candidates for HIPEC, there is currently only a single chemotherapy regimen consisting of pemetrexed (Alimta) used in conjunction with cisplatin that is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma.

To see all clinical trials that are open to new MPM patients, see clinicaltrials.gov.

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